The enduring importance of Big Foot and the Yeti

·4-min read
 Sumatra - Getty
Sumatra - Getty

We need to talk about Greta. I refer, of course, to young Greta Thunberg, she of the Swedish persuasion and protracted Climate Change strike.  

But not yet. Let’s begin instead with a cheery story of someone else with brown hair and short stature who drives people to action or distraction. 

Many years ago now, I learned of the orang pendek, a mysterious ape-man said to inhabit the jungles of Sumatra. Apparently, while some locals regarded this diminutive creature as a little god, to others he or she was just “the gibberer” - and a perfect pest. (You can already see where I’m going with this). 

The first recorded accounts of the orang pendek were from European settlers, one particularly striking yarn concerning a Dutch planter – let’s call him Van Winkle – who was one day walking through the trackless forests when he spied what he thought was an orangutan. Bearing in mind that this was back in the 1930s, and that Mr. Van Winkle was a bit of an ‘old school’ type – he was also a total moron – he raised his shotgun to shoot the harmless animal dead.

At which point, a little tear tickled down the creature’s furred cheeks. Van Winkle lowered his weapon, and looked with amazement into the ape-thing’s face – which, it seemed to him, had the delicate features of a girl. At which point, even our Van Winkle couldn’t help but feel moved.  Rather than give the weird beast both barrels, he let her go her way. 

 Sumatra - Getty
Sumatra - Getty

This anyway is the gist of the tale – and there were many like it, equally unreliable. But what gave me pause for thought as I researched further, was that apparently even those who really knew the forest were believers. The indigenous people called the Kubu were even said to leave parcels of tobacco out for the ape thing. Evidently it was partial to a fag every now and then. 

So, off I headed into the hinterlands of the island, wondering all the way about the needs of humanity. What was it about us that we conjured up these elves, leprechauns and other manifestations of a magical, half wild state?

In due course, near Mount Kerinci, I found a couple of disaffected  Kubu youths who agreed, for a fat fee, to lead me up through the tangled greenery into the very homeland of the orang pendek. Armed with our tobacco, up and up we went – stopping from time to time to munch on the eels they had smoked for the journey. And things soon looked very promising. My companions began talking in whispers; they exchanged glances. There was no doubt about it, we were near. 

Too near, as it turned out. Suddenly, among the mists and swaying tree limbs, the men froze. They had heard the gibbering of the ape-man and didn’t like it. They fled. 

I fled with them – because only they knew the way back and I didn’t fancy being lost for weeks on a thickly vegetated volcano, with or without a gibberer for company.    

Down the slope the two men pelted - and I came tumbling after, eventually impaling my chest on a  bamboo stem. Nasty!  I ended up having to first staunch the blood – this ruined my best T shirt -  then sew myself up with my boot-mending kit without anaesthetic. 

Well, we’ve all done it.  And that might have been the end of the matter – except that, years later in Flores (which is not that far away), the remains were discovered of a hominid who was peculiarly short. So perhaps the orang pendek wasn’t make belief, after all. 

 Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg

For me, though, the real value of the Little Man of Sumatra, the Big Foot and Yeti is that these rather fanciful proto-humans serve to connect us to the natural environment upon which we depend. They act as emblems and also messengers – sort of hairy angels.  

Which brings us neatly back to Greta. She too is small, her presence annoying to many. But like the orang pendek she is a voice-piece of the planet and we should acknowledge her with gifts of metaphorical tobacco. For sadly I happened to read environmental science at uni. and here’s the truth of it: whatever you’ve heard, I’m afraid there really is a scientific consensus that we’ve brought about a wave of mass extinction – obvious – and also a climate emergency. 

So it turns out that all along the fantasy was ours, not hers. If Greta didn’t exist, we’d have to invent her.  

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